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COLUMN

Fort Wayne needs to move 'debate' about charter schools to more productive area

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 12:02 am

Fort Wayne Community Schools board president Mark GiaQuinta asked, during his time to speak during a public meeting about a potential charter school that would be located on the former campus of Taylor University, that the Indiana Charter Schools Board delay its potential authorization vote scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday.

While possible, that delay likely isn't going to happen; the Charter Schools Board will meet in Indianapolis to discuss whether to approve what would be known as the Carpe Diem Summit Campus. The Fort Wayne location, if approved, would join Indianapolis counterpart Carpe Diem Meridian Campus, under the control of organizer Carpe Diem Indiana.

The charter's application - technically called a replication, since it is already operating in the state - says the school would be from grades 6-12 and be located at 1025 W. Rudisill Blvd. It would open this fall with a projected 130 students: 30 in sixth grade and 25 each in grades seven through 11. There would be no seniors in the first year of the school's operation.

The public comment period, as well as a question-and-answer session before it, grew tense at various points. GiaQuinta and Carpe Diem representative Rick Ongston had a heated exchange that was inappropriate and embarrassing for an elected official to provoke, considering GiaQuinta would likely not be inclined to allow such a vitriolic exchange to take place during a FWCS board meeting - particularly with school-aged children present, as there were Tuesday evening. Ongston also reminded GiaQuinta that there was likely nothing he could say that would change GiaQuinta's opinion that no charter schools should exist in the district, mentioning the non-binding resolution to oppose any charter schools that was approved during Monday's FWCS board meeting.

That's the problem with any "debate" over charter schools in Fort Wayne. It's not a debate anymore. Charter schools are now a part of Indiana law.

Charter schools are not a preference. They are an option for Indiana residents from which to choose, along with parochial schools and private schools, as defined and authorized by state law. Their establishment, and overall rules of operation, are part of Indiana code.

A number of FWCS administrators and senior staff members spoke, with all opposed to the Carpe Diem charter based on either its impact on district funding -- FWCS would lose funding for each student that left a district school -- or the perceived lack of need in a district that offers full choice on where students can attend school.

Those points are absolutely irrelevant. It doesn't mean those points aren't impactful to districts like FWCS. It means that impact doesn't mean a charter school should never be authorized, and likely won't be a factor in whether one will be or not.

Charter schools are public schools. No public-school district has a right to any specific number of students or any amount of funding attached to those prospective students. If a charter is authorized, then parents have the right to send their children there.

That is what is provided for, by law. Charters, as Ball State is preparting to do to the two local Imagine schools and Timothy L. Johnson Academy, can have their mandate revoked by their authorizer. That is what is supposed to happen if they are not deemed successful via the metrics within their charter -- but just because that is happening doesn't mean that all charter schools will fail.

Some speakers questioned the model by which Carpe Diem would operate, with a heavy focus on computer-based and online learning -- a far more relevant line of questioning, one that is more likely to be considered by the Charter Schools Board during its deliberations.

"Those are the kinds of questions I would have," said Claire Fiddian-Green, the executive director of the Charter Schools Board. "How would the school work? Could it support the model as it is presented? Would the students have the opportunity to learn, grow and be successful?"

"(Fort Wayne) is different," Fiddian-Green said. "In Indianapolis, we have more charters -- around 30 of them. We've already moved past the discussion about the right to exist. But what coming here does is help us to recognize that there are still challenges in front of us in explaining what our mission is and how charter schools can be successful, all around the state."

Ongston said after the meeting that while he appreciated the passion of FWCS educators, his mission is to provide a school that works for the students who choose to attend. If no students attend, then the choice has been made. If the students don't perform, another choice, closure, is placed on the table.

At no point in our conversation did he question whether Carpe Diem should be in Fort Wayne, or whether another schools' track record, charter or not, should factor into whether Carpe Diem could be successful in Fort Wayne.

That's because Ongston, if Carpe Diem Summit Campus approved, is offering nothing more than an educational model and a choice.

It's up to parents to decide whether they want their children to attend. Student performance will determine how successful their stay would be and whether the school will remain. That hasn't changed, no matter what school a child attends. Fort Wayne's public school districts can either accept the situation as it is or lobby to have amendments made to existing law.

Carpe Diem, by the way, loosely translated from Latin, stands for "seize the day."

Instead of continuing to fight old battles over settled law, perhaps it would be best for Fort Wayne's existing educational systems -- as well as those who don't want it to change while the world around it continues to do so -- to embrace that saying and move forward.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Elbert Starks III at estarks@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8266.